Relating, Creating, Transforming

If you haven’t seen the Netflix original show Stranger Things, I highly recommend it. I won’t give a full synopsis here, but even if you are not familiar with it, I think what follows will still be relevant and hopefully meaningful.

Let’s talk about friendship.

CinePOP-Stranger-Things-7-1-750x380In Stranger Things, friendship takes center stage. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and follows the lives of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and El, 12-year old kids. Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas have been friends since early childhood and they have their own club with secrets, pacts, etc. Something shakes them to their core, however, when one of their group, Will Byers, gets trapped in what’s called the Upside Down, an alternative dimension. The whole town of Hawkins starts the search, but to no avail. Everyone fears the worst, including his closest friends.

And then, a mysterious girl shows up. She is first called “Eleven” because of the number tattooed on her wrist. Mike eventually calls her El and despite the suspicions of Dustin and Lucas, El becomes part of their friendship club. It is El’s unsettling arrival into the lives of the three boys that is the catalyst for the writers of Stranger Things to define what the story is all about—friendship, and to define what that means in this tale.

We first get a glimpse in a scene with the three boys [minus the missing Will] and El, in the basement of Mike’s house one day after school. Lucas is upset that Mike hasn’t told his mom about El–that she’s living in his basement and probably has escaped from somewhere bad. Mike refuses to tell and so Lucas decides to take matters into his own hands. He opens the door to go upstairs to tell Mike’s mom. But the door slams shut by itself. Lucas tries again. It slams shut again. Then, the boys look at El.

ElmindbenderHer stare could cut through solid steel. Her nose is bleeding. All she says is: NO. It’s the first time that the boys recognize El’s mysterious powers and what she can move with her mind. They are in awe of her, afraid even.

“We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

Dustin is really honest. And though they all seem to fear El at this moment, their fear doesn’t prevent them from seeking to form a bond of friendship with her.

Problem is, El doesn’t know what “friend” even means. So Mike explains:

“A friend is someone you’d do anything for…friends tell each other things. And…
A promise is something you can’t break — ever. A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know. Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other…”

PromiseST
This definition of friendship drives the story of Stranger Things. After all, El is someone who has no experience with trust. On the surface, Mike’s very dogmatic definition of a friend is very twelve-year-old cut-and-dry. But if we look closer, the friendship of this group of kids is really based on trust, reconciliation and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. This idea is demonstrated again and again, like when Will first goes missing and all the boys’ parents tell them it’s too dangerous to join the search party, but of course they go and look anyway. When El tells them that the Upside Down contains a monster, they still pull out their compasses to try to find the portal to that world.

I think much of the appeal of Stranger Things is the friendship theme. After all, we too long for honest, loving friendships with others. If we can say that we have only 1-2 friends like that well, then we are lucky, no? And I also think it’s a story worth telling and embracing during this season and any season for that matter, because friendship of this quality leads to acceptance and inner and outer peace. Friendship of this level, just like in Stranger Things, can be salvific, resurrecting, healing.

For Christians, the season of Advent is mean to be a time of deep reflection, service to others, and development of spiritual practices. The Scriptures people read tend to be Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, authors who paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity that is full of war, corruption, greed, and fear.

Tucked within that negative narrative, however, is the belief that light breaks through it all—that we and this world are meant to be so much more.

That there are voices crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare a way of peace and reconciliation—a way forward in the middle of an endless desert. Thus, while the world around us and the people filling the earth can often cause us to fear or to isolate ourselves, we can count on one thing being constant. The Creator God of Isaiah is mighty and powerful, shaping the beauty and majesty of the natural world. And yet, this God/Elohim is also a gentle friend to humanity. The prophet flips the world upside down as the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low. The uneven ground is leveled, and the rough places are made plain. This is God’s doing and all of humanity sees it together.

Like the kids in Stranger Things who fear El’s mighty powers, we too can come to fear this Divine Elohim. But if we look closer, we can soon realize that fear is not what our relationship should be built on. No, in a world that is dangerous and alienating enough we long for connections that build peace and trust–including any relationship we have with the Divine. Some of us feel like outcasts, strangers, or someone on the outside looking in. We seek belonging and people who we can trust. Thus, finding a true friend can mean that we find a home or a family. Discovering friends who form bonds with us of acceptance and understanding, who are willing to recognize our suffering and share our love, make life worth living.

El was not to be feared, but loved and accepted. So too are we made to seek out friendships with others who choose to hear us, who encourage us to fully be ourselves, who love us as we are.

Friendship of this kind can move us towards peace. It’s not easy, to be sure, and peace does not mean the absence of conflict. In the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, peace is shalom, and this means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight…a rich state in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…a state that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in. Shalom is the way things ought to be.” [1]

So kudos to the friends in Stranger Things. May we learn from them. May friendship open doors for you and welcome you in. May bonds of love and acceptance drive you forward. Make shalom reality.

[1] “Shalom: The Real Utopia”.

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Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

Alternative Wisdom

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20

wisdomChineseThe most common type of wisdom in society is what we call conventional wisdom. This is the mainstream, what “everybody knows.” It is society’s understanding about what is real and how people should live. Conventional wisdom includes ideas that are so accepted they are not questioned. These ideas tell us now to live; we are socialized into conventional wisdom as we grow up.

Example: we are told that life is about reward and punishment, i.e. “your reap what you sow” or “get what you deserve.” Though this idea is prevalent in secular culture, it also exists in religion, i.e.: “God will reward or condemn you based on what you’ve done.” Obviously, conventional wisdom leads to social separations, because it claims that some people’s roles in society are more important than others.

A person’s self-worth or identity is based on how they measure up to society’s norms.

At the end of the day, conventional wisdom can lead to us thinking that the reality as we have labeled it is actually the end-all. This of course can close our minds to new realities and ideas.

There are many examples of conventional wisdom. Here are a few:

The Earth is flat. The Earth is the center of the Universe.
You have to make more money. It is always best to pursue promotions and jobs that pay more.
You should buy a house.
You should do tons of cardio exercise to lose weight.
Keep taking antibiotics so you won’t be sick.
In Hollywood: a movie can’t succeed unless it stars a famous actor.

What examples of conventional wisdom can you think of?

To bring this home, consider that many people’s image of God is based on their acceptance of conventional wisdom. God, for them, is the enforcer and the one who gives legitimacy to religious behaviors and viewpoints. It’s the idea that people must satisfy God…

conventional-wisdom-quote-minh-tan-halifaxNow let’s switch gears to alternative wisdom—a grouping of ideas and perspectives that are not afraid to ask questions, to challenge convention. Alternative wisdom confronts the so-called norms of society and asks why we consider these norms to be our reality. For example, conventional wisdom says that a person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards. Alternative wisdom says that all people have infinite worth that is intrinsic and not based on merit. Likewise, while conventional wisdom says that our identity comes from social tradition, alternative wisdom says that identity comes from centering in the sacred, and in our humanity. And finally, conventional wisdom tells us to strive to be first in line for everything, no matter what. Alternative wisdom says that the last will be first and the first will be last.

Can you think of your own examples of alternative wisdom?

More specifically, in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, there is most certainly a blend of conventional and alternative wisdom. If you look closely enough, I’m sure you can find various examples of both. To bring this conversation to its center I would like to hone in on alternative wisdom as it was for Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus, parables were storytelling methods of imparting alternative wisdom. The parables were not black and white. They asked questions. Typically, wisdom teachers like Jesus, Socrates, Buddha—they focused on a “wise” way and a “foolish” way; a narrow way and a broad way. Instead of telling people how to live or which rules to follow, wisdom teachers made observations about life and spoke from experience. This is why Jesus periodically referred to nature.

Jesus of Nazareth, unlike other religious leaders and teachers of the time, and unlike many of the churches and religious leaders of today, did not spend so much time interpreting scriptures. Instead, Jesus taught and modeled experiential living—the daily experiences people have.

Rather than focusing on written words, Jesus focused on the experience of God.

Jesus and others invited people to see something they might not have otherwise seen, to look past conventional wisdom and conditioned culture to something beyond, something that could transform a person. For example, the idea that a person’s purpose in life is to follow certain rules so that God will be pleased and then, when they die, God will allow that person to go to heaven—this is not the alternative wisdom of Jesus. Instead, Jesus flipped this convention on its head, saying that those who were thought of as the lowest and the least religious would be the ones better off in the end. Jesus’ wisdom portrayed God as Giver of Compassion and not Judge. Further, when Jesus spoke of death, it was not a physical death, but a death of that conventional self—dying to the societal norms that trap us and living into a new reality of transformation, resurrection and enlightenment.

Friends, don’t buy into conventional wisdom. Be different, be weird, defy the conventions.

Ask questions about why we do this or that. Seek alternative wisdom—based on what you see in nature, what you actually feel within yourself, and your own experiences. Seek and develop alternative wisdom, as this will help you see the bigger picture and enable you to get to know yourself better, apart from all the social conditioning and convention.

Give heed to alternative wisdom, which gives assurance that we are truly alive.

Matthew 5:1-10  

Hey, how ya feelin’ today? Blessed? Are ya feelin’ blessed today?

kidquestion
If you were to answer “yes” to that question, what does that mean, to be blessed?

Let’s ask our friend the dictionary. First off, if this word is used as a verb, it is pronounced blest, with one syllable, i.e. “Before the dinner started, grandma blessed [blest] the food.”  But this word can also be used as an adjective, and this case, it is pronounced with two syllables, i.e. “Gerry’s graduation from college was a bless-ed moment.” Of course, you can also say:

“I don’t have a bless-ed clue about what you’re saying!”

In general, though, blest or bless-ed means favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. This is the most typical use of the word, at least here in the U.S., where you hear people say “I’m blessed” quite a lot.

But the modern use of #blessed is not really close to the “blessed” said many times in a famous speech attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in Luke’s and in Matthew’s Gospels. Often called the Beatitudes, these words of Jesus are believed to have been said from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee, but over time, a collection of Jesus sayings, kind of like a Jesus mixtape.

The_Hamilton_Mixtape_album_cover_2016

These “blessed” quotes had their foundation in the Hebrew wisdom literature, the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

Jesus’ blessed sayings, though, are paradoxical. They don’t fit the typical idea of what it means to be blessed. Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated? These states of mind or being don’t necessarily seem blessed, at least according to society. But maybe that’s point. For Jesus,

Being blessed was about being well-traveled—being wise and awake.

Being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful. Mourning is about being open and honest when you are sad. Justice-seeking is wanting the best, not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; but for anyone anywhere. Being merciful to others means mercy will find you. Working for peace and not war ends your hate and starts your love.

So, I hear this saying to all of us:

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

Rituals of Love

Matthew 22:34-46

Love-225x300What rituals do you have when you wake up each day?
What rituals do you have when you go to bed?

It is not hyperbole to say that whatever “waking up” habits and “pre-sleep” habits we practice affect our days and how they are lived and experienced. I’m certainly not a morning person and would sleep as late as possible I could. Even so, I do appreciate the healthy morning rituals of friends, family, and colleagues. I’ve even practiced some of them myself. I do eat a fairly big breakfast when I first wake up. I do my best, when it’s sunny, to go outside/look outside and salute the sun. I put on clothes. I listen to music. In the evening, I brush my teeth and floss. I put coconut oil or some type of cream on my face. When I’m prepping for sleep, I do my best to turn off electronic devices and use breathe to turn off my monkey mind. It doesn’t always work, of course. But the practice of healthy rituals adds something good to my life and does change my experience of each day.

Some of these rituals become a big part of who we are and, I would argue, if they are healthy, said rituals can help make us whole.

Rituals, in religion, are of course widespread. Some are just silly and unnecessary. Some are for show. Other rituals exclude people, acting as gatekeepers for the religion. And then there are those rituals that….

Ring true and lead to health, healing, and humanity.

Like the Shema, a Hebrew prayer based on Deuteronomy 6:4 of the Torah:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.
Blessed be the Name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them
When you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

For many Jews, it is a practice to say this in the morning as they rise and in the evening before they sleep. For Jesus of Nazareth, a Nazarene Jew, this was how he answered the tough questions of Pharisees and Sadducees, the major religious leaders who always seemed to be setting a trap. It would have been tempting, right—to snap back at the lawyer-Pharisee who asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. After all, is there any good way to answer such a question?

If you’re religious or not, just rephrase the question to be: What is most important in life? When asked that question, how would you answer? Would you have to think about it? Would you be nervous, depending on who was in the room or who was asking?

What is most important in life?

It would have been easy to be distracted by the interrogation and being put on the spot. We don’t know what emotions Jesus felt in this story. Was he angry? Sad? Disappointed? Nervous? What we do know is that he answered with the Shema. He fell back on the prayer that started his mornings and ended his evenings. “Hear O Israel, God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Oh snap! That lawyer just got Shema-fied or Shema-shamed.

OH-SNAP--IT-JUST-GOT-REAL
Sorry for that. Couldn’t resist.

Anyway, Jesus’ answer was more than a prayer. He went on to say: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

So what is most important in life? Love God [who is one and for all], love yourself, and love others.

There’s a drop-the-mic moment if I’ve ever seen one.

So back to this idea of rituals to bring this home. Look, religions are often terrible to people. Let’s be honest, they are. Way too much. But that’s because people distort religions and use them to hide behind so they can be racist, prejudice, homophobic, hateful, complacent, or ignorant of the needs of those who suffer. Religions at their core are human attempts to find a baseline, a common ground, a shared value that goes back to that not-so-simple question:

What is most important in this life?

For Jesus, it was love in a threefold way: Love the Creator of all, love yourself, love others. This was the mantra. This should be said and lived when you rise and when you lie down to sleep. This should be posted on your walls and doors; this should be on your bumper stickers and tattoos and graffiti. This: Love.

Why do we need to keep saying this? Because there are still people who use this and anything else they can to be tricky. How many so-called Christians have used this love commandment to say to a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person, or a trans person: You should love God with your whole heart, mind, and strength. But you should hate who you are—your sexuality, your love preferences, your gender identification or expression. Love God. But hate who you are?

It also happens to others, does it not? If your skin color is of a darker shade or you’re not Anglo or a U.S. citizen, you should definitely love God, but love the skin tone? Love your cultural background? Love your language? Your religious difference? The love command/Shema is threefold.

You can’t just say you love God and stop there.

You have to love yourself as you are. And you also have to love others. If you ask me—doesn’t matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof. What’s most important in this life? I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider rising each day and showing some love to life and the sun and the trees and the oxygen and the food. And then showing yourself some love and accepting yourself as you are, even celebrating it. And then, in turn, meeting others during your day and loving them too, as they are. And then, when you end your day, loving the Creator of all living things, loving yourself [regardless of the mistakes you’ve made], and being grateful for the others in your life. Even if you feel trapped sometimes by tricky or unkind people, go back to your Shema. Go back to your meeting place where love keeps appearing and thriving and living in you. Go back to love. Post THAT on your Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; war that on t-shirts and display it with tattoos.

Love.

Following Light

John 8:12 [NRSV]
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I John 1:5-7a
This is the message we have heard from Jesus and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Matthew 5:14-16a
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.

diwaliheld This time of year, in the fall, there are a variety of traditions that celebrate the symbolism and presence of light. One such holiday is a big one: Diwali. Also called Dipawali, Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday in India. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that people light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness. To put it in context, Diwali is just as important to people from India as Christmas is to American Christians. And it is not just Hindus who celebrate Diwali. So do Jains, Buddhist, Sikhs, and many others.

And do did I. On Thursday night, I went to a friend’s place in Philly to celebrate Diwali with a group of people from various parts of India and the U.S. We ate great food [including particular sweets that are famous during Diwali] and wonderful curry with rice. After the meal, we ventured out into Center City to find an appropriate place to light up the world—with fireworks, of course. This is a common occurrence during the days of Diwali. Now because in Pennsylvania “real” fireworks are not legal, one of my friends purchased the PA-sanctioned sparklers, spinning flowers, and grand finale sparking thingys. We found a parking lot. We fired up the sparklers. We were having a great time. And then…

FireworksDiwali

A random person walking by started yelling something at us.

At first, we couldn’t make out what she was saying. She was incensed. Soon enough, we figured out that she was yelling:

“No! You can’t do that. Not here. No! This is wrong! Stop! You must stop!”

Apparently, not everyone embraces the light? So one of the people in our group approached her and explained that we were not harming anyone or anything and that it was Diwali and that these fireworks were legal and that we would clean it all up. But the lady didn’t care. She kept on ranting and threatened to call 911. Well, we didn’t stop. We kept on going. She eventually took her dog and left.

Then, on Friday, I was eating a samosa at a place near where I live, talking to the manager of the café, and she told me: “Yeah, my cousin was shooting off fireworks on his own lawn on Thursday and one of his neighbors called the cops on him.”

I couldn’t believe it. On his own lawn? Thankfully, the cops who showed up told the neighbor that everything was okay. After all, they were using PA-sanctioned fireworks on their own property, no? Makes we wonder if the 4th of July would elicit the same response. I’m guessing not.

So what does this lead me to think? Well, first of all, it makes me sad for those who cannot even for one moment embrace a holiday [even if it’s new to them] that celebrates light. But it also reminds me that not everyone is open and understanding. Not everyone wishes light for everyone, or light for the world. It’s sad but true.

Also, though, celebrating Diwali [and encountering the opposition] reminds me that if we are open to it, we realize that we are all connected. I mean, it doesn’t matter which religion you hold to or don’t. Light is a universal idea. The thought that someone could be in a really difficult time in their life and somehow light breaks through—we call can resonate with that. And I think we all want to think that light lives in each one of us, that light is in the world.

Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth thought this. Jesus taught others that light lived in them and that this light was God and that this light made them a community. Jesus also taught that each person should not keep their light to themselves. They should let their light shine. It’s the idea of God-essence being within you and me.

And while this is a beautiful idea [and one I try to embrace], we cannot ignore the other side of it. The Diwali story and the Christian story don’t just include light, but also darkness. And if you wish to locate the source of the light and the darkness, look no further than yourself. You see, the point of all this is to affirm that we should not judge others.

We are capable of light but we are just as capable of doing harmful and hurtful things.

If ever we think we have “arrived” as a kind and accepting person, we are in danger. We must always remember continually seek light, pursue it, surround ourselves with people who emit light, and in some cases, we must light it up even when others are telling us not to.

So what will that look like for you? How will you recognize the inner light you have? How will you emit light so others can see and connect with you?

 

 

Philippians 4:5-8

Emotional health is hard to come by in a world that seems to discourage trust in a healthy way, especially among many of in our communities who have a history of being marginalized. How can we seek a path out of the destructive patterns that recreate abusive relationships? How can we work towards a future that doesn’t recreate the past? What keeps us from this kind of healthy, holistic living: broken trust. When trust is broken we feel betrayed, alone, even worthless. We can enter into behavior patterns of mistrust, even when people have shown us that they are to be trusted. We can even perpetuate the same patterns in our relationships

Thus, it is essential that we seek restored trust. What are the elements of trust that we look for in a person, in life? What if we pursue and nurture these qualities in our relationships?

So…who was Paul of Tarsus? Good question. Like every author of Biblical literature, there is a lot of speculation and interpretation as to who Paul was. What we do know from other historical documents of the time and other Biblical books, is that Paul spent considerable time in prison. He was accused by the people of Philippi of disturbing their city and promoting customs that were not lawful for them or the Romans to observe. Leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin also sent Paul to trial because they considered him an agitator and a leader of a sect of the Nazarenes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.

Before I go on, if any of you have any baggage about Paul, i.e. what’s been most likely pushed on you by others, let’s put that on the table first. Some [and maybe that’s you] consider Paul a misogynist, homophobe, and strict legalist. By no means am I claiming that Paul of Tarsus [or any other Biblical authors for that matter] were perfect or extra-inspired, super-holy people, and that’s why they are Biblical authors.

No way.

Paul, like anyone else was a flawed human being and he actually said as much in some of his writings. Now look, I cannot address the whole “against women and gay people” thing in a few sentences and you’ll need to do more thinking and study to come to wise conclusions. What I do know, however, is that women covered their heads in the 1st and 2nd century. It was cultural. This is not a teaching of Paul. Likewise, some of Paul’s closest associates on his missionary journeys and most trusted leaders were women. They were obviously teaching and leading. People who wish to propagate the idea that women cannot be leaders or ordained ministers use Paul as a way to justify their gender bias. And, Paul was not a homophobe. This word and also the word homosexuality did not exist until this century and neither did the concept of sexual orientation. It’s a fact. When Paul mentions in his letter to Rome, unnatural acts, he is speaking of a whole of behaviors [as defined by Greco-Roman culture and Jewish culture]. I point you to Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and others for a more in-depth look at NT sexuality.

I say all this only so our conversation is not derailed by our biases about Paul of Tarsus. Otherwise, all that follows will not have any relevance. You see, Paul was a Pharisee originally. He was raised with a rigid belief system and set of morals. Most everything was “right” or “wrong.” He was raised to trust in a religious system and eventually to trust a Roman Empire that occupied Israel and spread its cultural and societal norms. But like most people who go through some sort of psychological break, Paul had a life-changing moment. We don’t know if it was a day, a week, or a period of years. Whatever the case, he changed his world view. He no longer trusted being a Pharisee. He no longer trusted the Roman Empire. He found peace and contentment in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But that was long after Jesus’ death; Paul never met Jesus. His journey to self-awareness and contentment was not as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is why some people can resonate with at least part of Paul’s story. He came from oppressive power and great privilege. At some point he broke away from that and changed. As Jesus did, Paul spent the rest of his days with the marginalized. And in doing so, he found peace within himself. This leads us to a pretty well-known part of Paul’s letter to Philippi, chapter 4.

The phrase “Do not worry about anything” could certainly sound like wishful thinking at first glance. But, as it fits within the original meaning of the Greek language, consider placing it after the first part of this text. In other words:

Be gentle with others, because you really don’t know what they’re going through. In your day-to-day moments, meditate, pray, be grateful. Whatever is honest, just, joyful, beautiful, kind, life-giving—think about these things and pursue these things in your relationships. If you do, a divine, holistic peace that doesn’t fit into society’s or religion’s boxes will fill you and surround you. You will think differently about yourself and others. You won’t judge life and its situations so much because you’ll take them as they are. And anxiety will not control you anymore.

As such, this is not telling you to just push aside your problems and feelings, to ignore suffering, to be complacent and to “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, this is an invitation to trust those things and people that bring you joy and encouragement, fill you with acceptance and peace. To think about and meditate on such trusted things and people, because the trust is earned. I’m hearing this text giving us all permission to Live into trust and into peace. Life is about Moving forward.

It is about stopping the continual dysfunctional patterns within our lives and relationships.

handscirclepeaceSee, we can try to be healthier, more spiritual, whatever—but we won’t be unless we change. We won’t find peace and wholeness by tweaking this or that or by trying various religious practices or joining clubs or making small lifestyle changes or making New Year’s resolutions. We can continually rearrange things in our lives, but it will never end. Not until we realize who we are at our core.

Are you feeling stuck in a dysfunctional past? If so, why? What relationships and behaviors are keeping you there? How can you move forward?

What drives you in life? Think about these things.

Where have you been hurt? Recognize this.
What qualities in people inspire and encourage you? Meditate on those qualities.

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